Young telegraph operator blamed for fatal rail crash

February 1, 2020

 

The St. Louis Post Dispatch published a series of illustrations featuring Clay Brown, the M.K.&T. Railroad telegraph operator at Paris, Mo., on the fateful early morning of Sept. 23, 1907. Here are three of those illustrations: Illustration 1 shows Brown napping as Train 443 passes the depot at Paris, Mo. Illustration 2 shows Brown when awakened by a dispatcher inquiring if Train 443 had passed. He answered “no.” Illustration 3 shows Brown in a panic after he learned that two trains were on the same track, going opposite directions. Accessed via Newspapers.com

 

 

Third and final installment of 1907 Moberly train wreck series.

 

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

 

Unlike last weekend’s tragic helicopter crash in California, which killed Kobe Bryant, family and friends, there were survivors to the head-on collision of trains 443 and 444 at dawn on Sept. 23, 1907, who could share their insight into what took place at the mingling of metal along the notorious rail curve at Pickle Dish, near Moberly, Mo.

The most noteworthy to tell their stories to investigators and the press were William McGlothlin of Franklin Junction, Mo., formerly of Hannibal, who was the conductor on the M.K.&T. 443, and Clay D. Brown, 24, of Madison, Mo., the night telegraph operator at Paris.

 

Conductor

William McGlothlin was the conductor on board westbound M.K. & T. Train 443 on Sept. 23, 1907, the five-man crew having left the outer depot at Hannibal at 2:30 a.m. McGlothlin held the ultimate responsibility for maintaining records for the train, including collecting the orders along the route.

When the westbound M.K. & T. Train 443 and the eastbound 444 collided on a curve at 6:30 a.m., the engineer on the 443 – C.E. Winegar - was killed. McGlothlin and the rear brakeman, J.B. Gordon, riding in the caboose, were minimally hurt. The head brakeman, R.H. Hubbard, riding on the engine, and the fireman M.E. Anderson, were able to jump to safety.

Following the wreck, McGlothlin testified for the coroner’s jury, conducted at Van Cleve’s Undertaking Parlour in Moberly. His testimony was published in the Sept. 24, 1907 edition of the Moberly Weekly Monitor.

“I am a freight conductor on the Katy and reside at Franklin Junction. I left Hannibal at 2:40 this morning with train No. 443 pulled by engine 194. The engine was in charge of Engineer C.E. Winegar and Fireman M.E. Anderson and my brakemen were J.D. Gordon and R.H. Hubbard.

“I got orders at the Outer Depot at Hannibal giving my train the right of track over train No. 444 from the Outer Depot to Moberly.

“We left the Outer Depot at 2:40 and waited at Monroe City until 4 o’clock for No. 96 to pass and waited again at Clapper until 4:30 for No. 96.

“I followed my orders throughout and at no time did I receive other instructions nor were any orders put out against me.

“We took water at Paris, stopping the train on the hill and bringing the (steam) engine down light to the water tank. I rode on the engine pilot and after water had been taken we backed up the hill, coupled on our train and came on through Paris. The operator there did not give me any orders and I did not see him around the station.
“The first intimation I had of danger was when I commenced turning somersaults in my caboose. I turned over several times as did my rear brakeman, J.B. Gordon. I later walked to Moberly and gave notice of the wreck.”

 

Telegrapher

Clay D. Brown, telegraph operator at Paris, Mo., fell asleep in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 1907, during his 12-hour work shift. He failed to notice that west-bound M.K&T. Train 443 had passed his post. Receiving no orders at Paris, Conductor McGlothin aboard the 443 had given engineer Winegar the go ahead to proceed to Moberly on assumedly clear tracks.

By the time that Clay Brown realized his error, it was too late to stop Train 443, although he tried. He telegraphed the station at his hometown of Madison, 14 miles away, to enquire if the 443 had passed.

The experienced night operator at Madison picked up on the urgency of the situation.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch of Sept. 29, 1907, tells what happened next:

“When the query from (Clay) Brown came over the wires, Night Operator Francis at Madison knew that he must act quickly. There remained one hope, the telephone. He might possibly arouse someone at Evansville, a little station five and one-half miles away, where there was no operator. He rushed out of the station and reached the telephone in the livery stable.

“To stop 443 was his objective, while every minute those trains racing along were getting nearer together. He called Evansville, but the sleepy little town was yet in its doze. For ten minutes he tried to arouse someone in the two stores in the village. He gave up and ran back to the depot. He tried to call Moberly, but Moberly was busy.”

Contact at the Moberly station wasn’t established until after the eastbound 444 had passed that depot.

In the meantime, Clay Brown, who was alone at the Paris depot, “sat and wondered what the result would be, but he says he never lost hope that the train would be saved.”

At 6:55 a.m., when the day operator arrived at the station, Brown left for his boarding house, unaware what had transpired on the rails.

“When I did not hear from Moberly any more, I thought the trains had been saved. I hoped so and I prayed so,” he told the Post Dispatch reporter.

As it was, however, a half an hour before he left the station, the fatal meeting of the two trains had taken place, some two miles east of Moberly.

He caught a freight train at Paris and rode it to Madison, where he grew up.

 

Clay Brown

Clay D. Brown was born in 1883 at Madison, Mo. An Army veteran of the Spanish American War, he served three years in the Philippines. He attended a school for telegraphy in St. Louis, graduating in June 1907. The Post Dispatch noted that the fateful night shift was his eighth shift to work as an operator.

Brown told the Post Dispatch:

“I did not realize that, sitting there with my hands over my eyes suffering with headache, I had been asleep when the dispatcher called me. Nor did I realize the flight of time. I told him that the train had not passed. Even ten minutes later, I told him I was sure it had not passed.

“When I found the train had got by, I prayed that someone would stop it. When I went to my boarding house, I was still hoping that there had not been a wreck, although I have since learned that the trains had met half an hour before I left the station.

“It was my first week of night work and I was not accustomed to it. This was the first time, however, that I had ever gone to sleep. I slept from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon the day before, but woke up with a dull headache. I do not know when I went to sleep, but it was after 4 o’clock. The dispatcher asked me if the train had passed at 5:20. This call must have awakened me.”

 

Coroner’s Inquest

C. Adams of Huntsville conducted the inquest. Jurors were W.P. Davis, Wm. Maynard, J.H. Lotter, S.U. Turner, W.S. Turner and James A. Tagert. After hearing testimony, the jurors determined that Brown had been responsible for the wreck. No criminal charges were filed, knowing that there was no criminal intent upon Brown’s part.

 

Note: Thank you to Archie Hayden and LaVerne See of Hannibal for their roles in bringing about the facts regarding this tragic rail accident.

 

Newspaper information was gathered via Newspapers.com and the digital Newspaper Archive, Quincy Public Library.

 

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com

 

 

This map of Missouri, from the State Historical Society of Missouri’s digital collection, Standard atlas of Randolph County, Missouri, is dated 1910, just three years after the horrific rail accident two miles east of Moberly, which killed four trainmen. The red line illustrates the path of the M.K.&T. tracks from Moberly to Hannibal. Illustration/Mary Lou Montgomery

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